Images of powerful women v powerful men

// 17 May 2009

Last weekend the Observer ran an interview with Caroline Flint MP, and illustrated it with this image:


The Guardian website has further images of her modelling some ‘high street fashions’, to showcase ‘credit crunch chic’.

I raise this not to criticise Ms Flint. The issue I want to highlight is the discrepancy between how male and female powerful individuals are shown, how their body language, poses and expressions are often very different. We’ve discussed this on The F Word before at least once.

I mean, can you ever imagine a male MP or Minister being posed in such a way? Reclining on a chair, bare legged, one hand resting on his own leg, the other bent at the wrist, the back of his hand supporting his head?

This gives me an opportunity to show some images from a 2006 issue of Management Today magazine which a friend of mine* gave to me a few years ago, and I haven’t ever had the chance to share. The magazine’s issue was intended to showcase the top high-flying women under 35. These women were described as “the UK plc’s female leaders-in-waiting”.

Here are some of the images from the article.




In contrast, on the following pages, an interview with then M&S Chair Paul Myners was illustrated in this way:


In the next issue of the magazine, the letters page was full of comment on this. One reader wrote:

It’s unimaginable that in a feature on men under 35 you would have had them pouting into the camera or lying languorously across the floor in a fetching singlet with an artfully composed, over the shoulder, come-hither expression.

Another commented:

It gives completely the wrong message – females in pouting poses tell me that they are achieving due to their sexiness. Is this the message you intended to convey? I cannot understand why five intelligent, determined and independent women allowed themselves to be used in this way. It looks more like the cover of a lad’s mag.

The article also included a letter from one of the women. She said:

When I appeared on the cover of MT, the response I got from clients and colleagues was unanimously positive. However, others criticised the piece for being ‘too sexy’. I have achieved whatever success I’ve enjoyed to date because I have focused on being professional and excelling at my job, not because I’ve tried to make myself look a particular way. The article (in my understanding) was trying to represent us as individuals rather than corporate stereotypes. I rather enjoy being a woman and feel no need to hide that in order to be taken seriously as a professional. It frustrates and saddens me that in 2006 some people still cannot see beyond what a woman is wearing to her achievements.

Another said:

If you can’t see a successful businesswoman out of pinstripes and sensible shoes, then perhaps it’s you who has a problem with stereotypes.

This debate is certainly not new, and this particular case is a few years old now, but I hope this further example will be useful in demonstrating how women and men can be portrayed very differently in terms of body language, pose, clothing, and facial expressions.

What the solution to this is – or even if there needs to be one at all – will surely be a matter for continuing debate.

As one reader commented to MT,

Please reassure me that this is not going to be your style in future. I am not seeking balanced coverage either – the thought of your next cover having Alan Sugar posing in his skimpies is too much to bear.

(*Thank you Steven Jones!)

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 17 May 2009 at 7:09 pm

The central issue is that no matter how powerful a woman is or how successful she is – she is always first, second and last ‘men’s sexualised commodities.’

Men, however are individuals and it is their achievements which are celebrated. Hence no images of powerful men in submissive coy poses or just wearing their skimpies.

The images of all the successful women feed directly into dominant beliefs that the only way these women succeeded was by using their sexuality’ in order to seduce male employers into hiring or promoting them.

Note too, there are no images of older women because as we know older women are invisible since male supremacy deems women after a certain age are no longer ‘sexualised commodities’ and therefore not worthy of being noticed.

For centuries now women have been portrayed and represented from the male-dominant persepctive and the advent of technology has not changed such misogynistic portrayals one iota.

What we need are images of men in sexually submissive poses and posing in their skimpies with copy seductive expressions. Because until such time we will hear claims ‘but what is wrong with the way successful women are portrayed.’ Constantly seeing images of successful women as sexualised commodities becomes normal and reinforces misogynistic stereotypes that women can only succeed if they adhere to a white male, middle-class definition of ‘non-powerful, submissive, attractive, nubile young woman.’

Amy2 // Posted 18 May 2009 at 12:20 am

You can always spin the argument round to women felt pressured to pose submissively or whatever, and patriarchy patriarchy patriarchy. But here we have women who sound pretty chuffed with their portrayal as sex objects. I don’t think there’s anything to be angry at – allow the women themselves to get their heads round it.

The more women moan about being sex objects the more they become sex objects. Do we really need more spotlight over the issue of whether we’re objectified in society or not? Getting angry over our ‘male gaze status’ feeds into what drives a sexist to actively portray women in such a way. I think women need to ignore the whole ‘Are we objectified, aren;’t we?’ argument. If we don’t care and still go on with careers etc then we win the battle don’t we? The sexists look the insecure little boys and we’re the strong ones.

Ignore it, focus on your career like these ladies are doing. Only social attitudes can change the way women are seen, individuals getting angry over deep embedded social issues with women does nothing but cause stress- related illness! These women might be taken less seriously like this, but to most people it reads quite obviously as male insecurity and fantasy play.

If women make an issue out of it it becomes an issue for us. If men make an issue out of powerful scary women and how best to demean them, it still is an issue, but only for them…

kandela // Posted 18 May 2009 at 11:07 am

“I rather enjoy being a woman and feel no need to hide that in order to be taken seriously as a professional.”

What frustrates and saddens me is that the business woman who wrote this hadn’t stopped to consider why having a sexy look might be equated to ‘being a woman.’ For crying out loud, the fact your a woman is self evident, no matter what you are wearing. We really need to stop thinking of sexiness as a gender trait.

Actually I have no issue with what the women are wearing in the pictures for the most part. Really what men wear in business is too austere and inexpressive, there should be a balance somewhere in the middle. The problem as I see it is that they’ve been photographed as if they are models. Not one of them is sitting behind a desk or in a management setting. All those white backgrounds and wall hugging poses makes it look like an A-Ha music video.

Lara // Posted 18 May 2009 at 12:35 pm

My flatmate brought home a copy of Mail he found on the train and from the front page criticising a new mum at 60 up to the sports there were several ‘woman hating’ pieces. This was in either Saturday or Sunday’s paper and *infuriated* me—You-tell-Caroline-Flint.html

Nicki // Posted 18 May 2009 at 12:42 pm

I’m so glad other people found the article about Caroline Flint MP bizarre and sexist – despite her comments on misogyny in the workplace, I found her interview generally to be a flimsy attempt at commenting on the difficulties in Parliament for women whilst simultaneously commenting on her private life and her statements about her position on the MP “hot list”. Everything that I find offensive about attempted feminism-lite was in there…

juliet bell // Posted 19 May 2009 at 11:28 am

interested in the comment about the new mum at 60…until recently the triple A test was performed for pregnant women who were older inorder to determine if your child was a risk being disabled insome way. It was the womens fault for having a child later in life. Only now are they looking at the father too and finding that there is a corrilation between the age of both parents and possible disabilities. So should this not be a point for the newpapers!! A classic case of sexism through ignorance!

Redheadinred // Posted 20 May 2009 at 11:24 am

juliet bell – Yeah, you’re right. Can you imagine a headline ‘Man becomes father at 67’, and then comments about how an older man shouldn’t be having children? Granted, there was hype when the 13 year-old boy seemed to have become a father, but strangely enough he was pitied rather than blamed. A 13 year-old girl would have been blamed and called a slut.

kandela // Posted 21 May 2009 at 4:39 pm

Perhaps images of politicians like those above are to be expected with recruitment drives like this one:

In case you can’t be bothered going to the link, the story is about the Liberal party in Australia (or at least sections of it) using provocative images of female party members to attract (and get this) more male membership!

What made any of the organisers/participants think this was a good idea I’ll never know. The only good thing to come out of it was Prue Goward’s disapproving line: “…I think that we have to remember that people join political parties because of the facts, not the figures.”

MariaS // Posted 24 May 2009 at 9:06 pm

Amy2: “Ignore it, focus on your career like these ladies are doing. Only social attitudes can change the way women are seen, individuals getting angry over deep embedded social issues with women does nothing but cause stress- related illness!”

But how will social attitudes change if no one questions them? Who will change them if actual individual people do nothing?

We just take it for granted that women are represented in one way and men are represented in another. Think how very simple it is to point out how odd it would seem if men were portrayed in the same way, yet hardly anyone thinks to consider this or think about why it would feel incongruous to us. It’s quite reasonable to question why this difference exists.

(This website juxtaposes images of men and women to illustrate differences in representation: )

Either powerful men should also be portrayed in ways that present their bodies as sexy, or powerful women should also be presented in the same respectful way that powerful men currently are. The unquestioning obedience to these conventions of representation serves to continue to naturalise gender: the idea that it is vitally important to know at all times who is a man and who is a woman so that they can be treated differently, and to use all kinds of conventions to mark who is what sex.

Asking these questions isn’t stressful at all by the way. Sure, there’d be ways in which life might be easier if I went along with the gender consensus that this is really just how things are, but it’s interesting and very satisfying to think about how things might be different, why they are the way they are, and of ways to change things.

The MEP and the businesswomen very probably were pleased with their pictures, but even if we did know how they felt that would not invalidate Catherine’s observations about the pictures, because they are just a few examples of many many similar images. The question here is about this wider pattern: why are women and men almost always depicted in these markedly different ways? It’s not that one way of being depicted is better than the other, looked at neutrally, it’s that one way is almost always used for women and not for men, and vice versa. Why? What purpose does this serve?

We don’t have to determine that these women were coerced or pressured into being presented this way. They and the photographers, designers, journalists, and editors involved in creating the images collectively chose to represent them in this very typical way. They aren’t influenced by a pre-existing widely diverse range of media images of women, they are influenced by the pre-existing predominance of one particular way of presenting women – why does that way predominate?

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